A coal train navigates its load through an s-curve near Coal Creek Jct. in the Powder River Basin. (Jerry Huddleston/FlickrCC)

The time has come for Wyoming to rise to the occasion and address the truth about the declining coal industry. 

Wyoming must step up to help Wyoming’s coal communities transition to a new future. The devastating impact to coal miners and the community of Gillette with the abandonment and hollowing out of the Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte coal mines by an unscrupulous operator must be addressed.  

 The state of Wyoming knew that Blackjewel’s CEO, Jeff Hoops, has one of the worst safety and environmental records among coal mine operators. Unfortunately, instead of rejecting Blackjewel’s license to mine, the Department of Environmental Quality granted the license to mine and then proposed transferring the coal permits from Contura to Blackjewel. The DEQ proposal would effectively let Contura off the hook for obligations to the miners, the community of Gillette and the state. 

Powder River Basin Resource Council is the only entity that objected to the transfer of this permit to this bad operator. 

Workers at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines describe working conditions without enough toilet paper or soap in the bathrooms, ink or paper in offices, and barely enough oil or fuel for equipment. Small businesses and vendors were not paid for their work or supplies. Miners’ health, unemployment and retirement benefits were not paid.

Is this the kind of company Wyoming should permit to do business in our communities? Blackjewel owes taxes at the local, state and federal levels and has probably not paid their black lung or Abandoned Mine Land payments.

Wyoming and the DEQ need to immediately confirm that financial assurances are sufficient to accomplish the nearly $250 million reclamation work required at the mines. The DEQ’s database indicates that there are about $220 million in third-party bank-issued sureties for reclamation work at the mines, which are still backed by Contura — at least until the permit transfers go through. But about $30 million of the reclamation work is backed by large ranch properties. Questions about the valuation of the properties and the DEQ’s ability to acquire and sell the properties to complete the needed reclamation work are very concerning.  

The sooner these financial assurances can be appropriately monetized, the sooner the 600 Wyoming employees left high and dry by Blackjewel’s precipitous bankruptcy filing can return to work and the sooner reclamation can resume in earnest.

We urge Gov. Gordon to take all legal steps necessary to request performance of the bonds from the issuing sureties and to seize and sell the real property collateral. Once this occurs, we hope there would be a way for the DEQ to quickly re-employ the workers to accelerate the reclamation work that needs to be done. The ongoing bankruptcy may present obstacles to such actions, but the state hiring back the workers to help complete the reclamation work would be the best thing for the employees, the community and the environment. 

Reclamation work, done properly, will take several years, and allow the workers, Gillette and Campbell County to transition rationally and with as little pain as possible to the future economic reality that appears to be inevitable.

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Joyce Evans

Joyce Evans is Chairwoman of the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

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9 Comments

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  1. I don’t know who wrote this but I believe you are missing the point these two mines mine coal productively and make a great deal of money not only for the workers, county but also for the state. Black jewels problem is that they were took over by a crook that used us for a cash cow and then ran us into bankruptcy. Whoever wrote this appearently doesn’t know what coal has and can mean for this state in the future. COAL is not dead!!!!

  2. Reclamation? Reclamation is always ongoing.

    Time to get new ownership in there to mine the clean and abundant coal of the area.

    Enough of the bogus manmade climate change BS. Time to mine the coal.

  3. It gets old hearing state officials say, “It’s not time yet” to offer something more than unemployment forms and sympathy to 600 dispossessed Wyoming workers and their communities, Let’s use the power of government to actually do something directly for our citizens, and begin thinking ahead.
    The State of Wyoming needs to instantly call all the reclamation bonds they can, seize and sell the real property collateral, and PUT THE MINERS BACK TO WORK. There is at least $250 million of reclamation to be done, and it’s about time this state got aggressive on behalf of its citizens and stopped acting like a lapdog resource colony!

  4. 50 percent of all US business in California run out of Toilet paper in the office. Construction workers carry their own work bags and are self sufficient .anyway. These men and woman choose to take care of themselves because they are competent individuals. who do not need to rely on the government for Toilet paper and pencils.. It is their choice and right to decide, If some are discontent with their job, they can seek employment elsewhere. and find a happy home. You do not have any right to choose or make decisions for them either. Leave Union Workers alone. You people need to start solving the Homeless and drug epidemic along with the illegal immigrant crossings on our southern border. Stop wining

    1. I didn’t realize that California was a BYOTP state but I’m not surprised. Moving on, the idea of putting the miners to work in the reclamation process seems like a reasonable approach to a tough situation. If the union folks agree (or could even be involved in the decision-making process) doing so might help keep all parties engaged and offset the sudden loss of income for those thrown out of work. Dumping this liability on Wyoming taxpayers, although a tried-and-true tactic by whatever mine or mineral company goes belly up, is one of the things that makes it so hard to diversify Wyoming’s economy.

  5. Putting the miners back to work ASAP is the priority. What a difference from the Amax Coal days for those two mines, when they were a showplace of best practices, and regular contenders for the Sentinels of Safety Awards.

    Wyoming politicians fought against the PRB mines opening, and have often pocketed campaign funds while not looking out for Wyoming’s citizens best interests. I hope that Gov. Gordon heeds this message, and salvages the best deal for Wyoming.

  6. BULL! The industry that got rich making the mess should pay 100% for cleaning up the mess. Not the innocent taxpayers!

    Wyomingites owe the coal industry absolutely nothing but grief for them having destroyed Wyoming’s land, water, air and wildlife habitat for over a century and for relentlessly lying about how wonderful their environmental destruction has been for Wyoming citizens.

    The CO2 this industry has spewed into our atmosphere is driving the worst manmade environmental disaster to which this planet has ever been subjected. The damage this industry has done is just beginning and will continue for a century or more.

    I fully reject the notion that Wyoming citizens or any other citizens of this one and only planet Earth owe fossil fuel industries one single dime.

    Duane Short ~ July 6 2019

  7. The piece apparently starts as a call for Wyoming to abandon its reliance on coal, but then changes course entirely. This is typical of the mindset of the state as well. Our leaders in Cheyenne and Washington hear the death rattles of coal and the rest of the fossil fuel industry, and they’ll even say they hear them, but they are still trying to revive the industry rather than prepare for its death and the aftermath. Wyoming’s economy is about to get far worse, and eventually the only industries left will be tourism, ranching, and a healthcare industry faced with caring for an expanding stubborn aged community that refuses to change.